Focus on India in Houston

With its images of the dispossessed and the marginalised, the US Fotofest 2018 Biennial tried to realign cultural politics

Published - March 24, 2018 04:00 pm IST

 Manoj Kumar Jain, ‘Returning from Successful Hunt, en Route, Dantewada’

Manoj Kumar Jain, ‘Returning from Successful Hunt, en Route, Dantewada’

A good title for the 35th edition of the FotoFest 2018 Biennial in Houston, U.S., would be reclaiming identity. For this version’s focus on India, 47 artists from India and the diaspora chosen by Steven Evans, the executive director of FotoFest, and photographer Sunil Gupta, the lead curator, brings a refreshing perspective to the shifting notions of Indian identity in a time of right-wing populism. Through a wide range of approaches — from photography as fine art to photojournalism and social documentary styles — emerging, mid-career, and established artists reinscribe the identity of marginal communities as much as they subvert stereotypes of gender, religion, caste, class, and heritage.

Compelling reality

Gupta’s deliberate focus on images made after 2000 provides a contemporary platform for considering new ideas of cultural politics. For instance, in the classic black-and-white images of Manoj Kumar Jain, Vinit Gupta and Ishan Tankha, national identity is contested in terms of the place of marginalised indigenous communities. Jain’s images from ‘The Forgotten Frames’ series made between 2002 and 2008 of tribals from the Bastar region in Central India capture the lives of an invisible sector of society that have thrived for centuries in the forested hills. The artist’s admiration for his subjects is apparent from the way their inherent grace and beauty emanate from his frames. What emerges from the images taken mostly in the local marketplace where the tribals come to barter their stock is a sense of compelling reality hidden beneath the banal surface of ordinary existence. Similarly, Vinit Gupta’s poignant images from ‘Where They Belong’, 2013 -2017, of a native community in Eastern India dwarfed by the lush Mahan forests which they thrive on capture the essence of their lives. Jain’s images of the tribals, like the pictures by Vinit Gupta and Tankha, came at a time when the government’s eagerness to harvest natural resources found beneath the forests of Central and Eastern India had rapidly displaced indigenous societies.

 Indu Antony, 'Quickgun Murugan', from the series ‘Manifest’

Indu Antony, 'Quickgun Murugan', from the series ‘Manifest’


Depicting modes of survival is also central to Gauri Gill and Vicky Roy’s black-and-white images of hardscrabble lives. In ‘Jannat’, 1999-2007, Gill’s intimate portrayal of a single mother and her two children’s impoverished lives in a Muslim settlement in the desert of Rajasthan is just as touching as Vicky Roy’s images of street children in ‘Street Dreams’, 2005-2008. Presented with candour and care, the images of the children in the desolation of the desert and the filth of the streets reveal their disregarded, minoritised world.

By bringing the marginalisation of minorities to the forefront, the photographs in the exhibition mirror a venue of complex interpretations. While Asif Khan’s black-and-white social documentary photographs showcase displaced Muslims escaping sectarian violence in makeshift camps in Muzaffarnagar, the photojournalistic approach of Anita Khemka and Imran B. Kokiloo exposes the severe injuries suffered by the local populace from rubber pellets used by the army in conflict-ridden Kashmir.

 Pablo Bartholomew, 'Steve Banerjee, founder of Chippendales, at his club in L.A., USA’

Pablo Bartholomew, 'Steve Banerjee, founder of Chippendales, at his club in L.A., USA’


Home in utensils

But the most painful images that bring home the impact of photography as a vehicle of social change are Arun Vijai Mathavan’s dispassionate pictures of Dalits in ‘Millennia of Oppression’, 2016. Here the subjects are forced to clean sewage, dispose the dead, and perform autopsies in government hospitals by virtue of their low status in society. Mathavan’s gritty imagery of rudimentary tools, extracted organs and cadavers unmasks their lives of hell. Even so, his unflinching exposure of the community’s precarity dignifies their existence and undermines centuries of class and caste segregation.

Subversion of middle-class norms is depicted in many forms. There are colourful images of utensils, shoes, and clothes from Chandan Gomes’s one-room household in ‘There are things I call home,’ 2009-2012, which give valence and regard to peripheral lives from lower economic rungs. And in Indu Antony’s playful but surprisingly effective series ‘ManiFest,’ 2012, brightly attired queer women masquerade as strong-armed men in order to undermine stereotyped gender roles.

Artists like London-based Max Kandhola’s series ‘u fucking paki,’ 2017, deconstruct received ways of thinking and seeing by appropriating a Victorian artistic strategy. Tender sepia-toned portraits of family and friends made to resemble the 19th century British artist Julia Margaret Cameroon’s romantic figures elevate the humanity of ordinary Indian and Pakistani people in the U.K., long subjected to racial slurs and marginalisation.

 Gauri Gill, 'Untitled' from the ‘Jannat-34’ series

Gauri Gill, 'Untitled' from the ‘Jannat-34’ series


Even Pablo Bartholomew’s ‘Indian Émigrés,’ shot between 1987 and 2009 in the U.S., U.K., France, Portugal and Mauritius, presents Indians who after years of struggle have begun to own apricot plantations in the U.S. and enjoy sari-clad picnics in Paris.

Sunil Gupta’s exhibition reflects the complex relationship between the depictions of forms of minoritisation and a new cultural identity. The repeated enactment and mimesis of forgotten minorities is a claim for their voices to be heard and lives to be acknowledged. By championing the lives of marginal communities and conveying their experiences from the periphery to the centre, the exhibition initiates the promise of change. The portrayal of minority citizens then is their release from being relegated to the frontiers and the reinscription of their identity at the heart of a new world order.

ON SHOW: US FotoFest 2018 Biennial, till April 22, Houston, U.S.

The writer is a New York-based author who travels frequently to review exhibitions on Asia, Africa, and West Asia.

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